There’s a certain inherent contradiction in John Joseph Adams’ massive slab of anthology, Epic: Legends of Fantasy. An anthology, particularly one with this many authors, is pretty much by definition the province of shorter pieces. And yet the subject matter, epic fantasy, practically demands a bigger canvas to play on. Epic speaks of massive armies and huge maps filled with unpronounceable made-up place names, of lengthy royal genealogies and lenghthier backstories, all in all not the sort of stuff one generally finds room for in short, or even medium-length fiction.
And yet, here it is, filled to bursting with stories from luminaries of the subgenre ranging from Hobb and Rawn to the reigning king of sword-infused doorstops, George R.R. Martin. It succeeds in more places than one might think, while still mounting the occasional failure to remind the reader that when it comes to epic fantasy, even the missteps are big.
The best contribution, or perhaps the one that will be the most appealing to old-school epic fantasy fans, is of course Martin’s. “The Mystery Knight” is another Dunc and Egg tale, a story of politics, chivalry, and the looming threat of war, with just enough maybe-magic in it to elevate the fantasy quotient. Refreshingly free of unlikely triumph over impossible enemy hordes, it is instead a story of an honest man in the middle of a web of deceit, one who just happens to be very large and holding a sword at an opportune moment. Conan, one suspects, would be proud.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Alchemist” is another winner, a story of an alchemist and his unlikely family struggling against both corrupt politicians and a seemingly unstoppable magical threat. Bacigalupi’s balancing of his hero on the knife-edge of moral choice – how far will he go to help his critically ill daughter, knowing that everything he does to assist her makes the greater problem worse? And it is this willingness to sacrifice the greater good for the personal that gives the corrupt powers that be leverage over him, placing him in position to make a weightier, harder moral choice in the end.
Other stories that take advantage of the full scope of the canvas afforded by the epic, and they are numerous here, are Trudi Caravan, whose “The Mad Apprentice” reads like an enjoyable fantasy riff on Sylar’s brain-eating binge on Heroes, while N.K. Jemisin’s “The Narcomancer” opens a door to larger mysteries through the troubles of one small village. Aliette de Bodard’s “As The Wheel Turns” ups the stakes, expanding its narrative of a deceptively simple choice across centuries through the heroine’s assertion of independence in the face of destiny, and Michael Moorcock’s “While the Gods Laugh” is an enjoyable slice of classic Elric, complete with suitably nihilistic ending.
Interestingly enough, where the anthology tends to fall down is with excerpts from epic fantasy dagwoods, chunks of larger worlds that due to the space limitations of the format feel incomplete or small. Brandon Sanderson’s “Rysn” is a tiny character moment from a world largely founded on blood and thunder; while it may serve as a change of pace in the novel it’s originally cut from, here it’s just a lot of unanswered questions and an unsatisfying conversation. Similarly, Patrick Rothfuss’ story of Kvothe taking down a murderous band of false Edema Ruh feels less like an epic story and more like a reminder to the reader of how wonderful the main character is, with reinforcement from various bit players who chime in along the way. There’s no sense of struggle or of greater odds being overcome, just one powerful character stomping some low-level thugs and, after some forced misunderstandings, being applauded for it.
Ultimately, the shrewdness of Adams’ choices in putting the book together comes through. Anchoring the book with big names and traditional-style tales, he then reaches out to more atypical examples of the genre, pushing boundaries for readers who might not have otherwise realized that stories by Jemisin or Mary Robinette Kowal were in their wheelhouses. In that, the anthology is a success. Even if individual pieces don’t carry their weight, Adams achieves a repositioning of the definition of epic fantasy, one that renders it both more accessible and more vital.